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Mario & John's Tavern: a community institution

Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 2:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 2:03 p.m.

(Editor's Note: Even as lives become more and more digital, Petaluma has shown that it cherishes its brick and mortar gathering spots — the taverns, bars and cafes where people can meet up, talk about their days, and learn what's happening in the community. Those institutions play a rich role in Petaluma's history, and this is the first in a series that profiles them.)

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Donnie Figone, right and brother John Figone stand outside Mario & John's Tavern on East D Street, where the bar's original neon sign still hangs.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier

Facts

Mario & John's Tavern

428 East D Street
Petaluma, CA 94952
(707) 762-9984

In 1946, a young World War II veteran named Mario Figone returned home to Petaluma from the Army. It was quite a year for Figone. He married his sweetheart Lillian Wilson and then dove right in to work, taking over a corner grocery store with his brother John as a partner. A few months later, the two added the bar next door to their enterprise and named it Mario & John's Tavern.

Nearly 67 years later, the original sign still lights the corner of Wilson and East D Streets, sending out an inviting neon glow into the quiet neighborhood. Mario & John's Tavern has been a mainstay for almost three generations of patrons, even after John and Mario died and Mario's sons Donnie and John took over.

“We grew up right around the corner in the same house that my grandfather Giovanni built and my father Mario was born in,” reflects Donnie Figone, adding that he considers many of the bar's patrons friends. “I was a kid when I started helping out in the grocery store so I've known some of the customers since then.”

“It's a great place, one of the few real neighborhood taverns in Petaluma,” he added.

Donnie Figone is the kind of person you would hope to find running your neighborhood tavern. An infectious smile and a hearty handshake are indicators of his gregarious nature, even at 6 a.m. when he comes in to help set things up for the first shift at 8 a.m. And, until a couple of years ago, he went right from the bar to his day job at Shamrock Materials, where he worked in sales for 38 years before retiring. He remarks that, “In the last few years we've seen customers move or pass away, and the economy had a big impact on what people could spend.”

Though the economy has now picked up, the brothers are still considering selling the bar and are in discussions with possible buyers. Donnie Figone declined to say who potential buyers are or when a deal might be finalized, but made clear that the building will stay in the family — only the business will change hands.

Figone has mixed emotions but says he recognizes that change can be positive. “We're only selling the business, not the property, so we feel good about still being a part of what comes next.”

In the tradition of a neighborhood establishment, the 8 a.m. opening draws a coterie of regulars, some of whom are getting off work and some who are just early birds. The space itself is pleasantly illuminated by natural light, which bounces off the polished wood bar. Cordial greetings and sports scores are exchanged, along with the news of the day. Joey Dolinsek, a carpenter by trade — and a lifetime skateboarder — is one of the morning crew. However, on a recent evening, he and a woman he described as “a lady friend” stopped in for a beer after the races at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which is walking distance from Mario & John's. “It's got all the stuff I like, pool, shuffleboard, sports on TV,” he said.

The afternoon crowd swells with a core group of long-time patrons who occupy the 14 stools at the bar and spill over to the scattered tables, including couples and single women.

“Mario always said he wanted women to feel safe and be treated like a lady and the men respect that,” said Donnie Figone.

Conversations focus on sports, local goings-on and the common threads of experience that only people who've known each other most of their lives can follow. Word of the possible sale has been going around, and the regulars are concerned but philosophical about the situation.

Some of these folks are still around at 5 o'clock, when workers drift in from manufacturing companies in the area, and vendors dash in at the end of their route for a cold one. Colleagues from other pubs and restaurants drop by, the decibel level goes up and so does the camaraderie.

Figone returns to oversee the shift change and say hello to the throng that lines the bar, calling most by their first names and taking time to indulge in a little friendly banter about losing teams and winning games. Jake Mischel can often be found at the end of the bar. He started a similar venture, first called The Aquarium and later Jake's Bar & Grill, so has a keen understanding of the demands of running a bar. “It's a seven-day-a-week job,” said Mischel. He sold his bar several years ago and the present owner changed the name back to The Aquarium. “Now I distribute cheese for The Petaluma Creamery and I come in here to see friends.”

As the evening progresses, the clientele morphs into a younger crowd. Groups cluster around the pool and shuffleboard tables. Sarah and Paul Drake join Paul's brother Stephen and another couple for a night out. She and her friend, Heather Jacobsen, chat while they watch their husbands challenge each other at the pool table.

“You can relax and chill here,” said Drake. “There's no pressure.” Jacobsen agrees and adds, “This place is the best.”

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at dyann.espinosa@arguscourier.com.)

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